Highlander Write-Off: Which music genre is most effective for commenting on contemporary social issues?

Drawn by Justus Ross

Country music is the ideal genre for commenting on social issues giving a voice to sidelined populations

By: Evan Ismail, SSW

As one of the most popular music genres in the United States, country music has a particularly long history of representing the voices of Americans left behind by American capitalism. Though it has experienced an infusion of a popular sound, typified by the “Bro Country” trend in the past 10 years, there are still many songs that have an important and effective message on class issues — primarily with other songs that consider feminism and race as pressing issues not only in the genre, but the nation at large. Country music is a highly effective genre for commenting on social issues because a wide swath of the country has experience with the problems of rural America — high costs of living and wealth disparities, for example — which places the genre in a unique position when discussing relevant social problems. 

Today’s country music has roots in the instruments and music of the enslaved, folk songs of the working class, Scotch-Irish and English ballads and blues and gospel music in the American South’s so-called “Hill Country.” The unique blend of American country music has brought about distinct messages that speak to a large segment of the American population. The most prevalent of the issues tackled by contemporary country music is that of class, emergent in the five-decade high rate of income inequality in the United States. Additionally, several songs in country music speak to the rural lifestyle and the importance of a population that perhaps feels misunderstood and left out. 

One song that immediately comes to mind is Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States” recorded in 2010. Opening with two rather obnoxious passengers flying first class from New York City to Los Angeles, they comment on the paradoxical mix of uniformity and shapelessness of the American Midwest, commonly known as “flyover country.” Aldean then cuts in explaining that they clearly have not been to the region, or met the farmers who work tirelessly to provide the country with foodstuff and witnessed the beauty and importance of the Midwest. Aside from clearly representing resentment at characteristically snobbish wealthier Americans, this song explains that this part of the country is more important than many would tend to think. 

In a similarly placed ballad with a different angle, “Cost of Livin’” by Ronnie Dunn, released in 2011, chronicles the story of an Army veteran who feels disillusioned and laments over the high cost of living and Rust Belt anger at the loss of manufacturing jobs. The veteran is trying to convince an employer why they should be hired, while consistently panicking over high gas prices and foreclosure. Additionally, Margo Price’s 2017 ballad “All American Made” offers a blistering critique of the American government and economic system. Overlaid intermittently with speeches from American presidents and political figures in a garbled, radio hiss, Price wonders if “the president gets much sleep at night.” This song represents a compelling downside of rural, and by extension American, life and speaks to a feeling of widespread malaise in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. 

Feminism has also been a regular subject of recent pieces in country music, though admittedly the tradition is not as extensive as the messaging regarding class and rural idealism. Women are routinely underrepresented in hits out of Nashville and receive significantly less airtime on country radio. Songs like the newly released “Lady Like” by Ingrid Andress are meant to rebuke American society for its sexist expectations of women. Additionally, “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie and Tae released in 2015 expresses dissatisfaction with the “Bro Country” trope of objectified women, trucks and beer that has largely dominated the country airwaves. “Buy My Own Drinks” is another take where the trio Runaway June states they don’t need a boyfriend and do just fine by themselves. 

Another topic beginning to be discussed more often is race, especially since the genre remains predominantly white. Only a handful of black country artists have had mainstream success and the genre does have a troubling past regarding popular minstrelsy. A new crop of black artists, particularly Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown, have broken into the charts with Jimmie Allen’s 2018 “All Tractors Ain’t Green” which comments on the racial dynamic in country music, pointedly stating “I ain’t afraid of standing out.” Many black artists are routinely questioned on their country bona-fides despite the fact that these two artists in particular were raised in rural regions of the country and provide nuanced, personal perspectives on their lives. 

In a relatively homogenous genre, black and female artists stand out more and with effective algorithms in radio and streaming, these artists can make a larger impact and reach a wider audience while bring forth a different perspective on particularly rural America. 

Though many popular country songs are superficial and vaguely reflective, many recent and past releases in the genre have made interesting and compelling comments on two dynamics of American life: the importance of rural regions of the U.S., but also the troubling class afflictions that have stricken the country. Feminism and race are also topics that are beginning to emerge as well. Country music’s popularity is growing on Spotify and the genre was one of the most popular on radio among adults 18-34 in 2019, Nielsen’s most up-to-date ratings. Country can be an effective commentator on social change and using new internet-based streaming services, pieces that are more critical and deep are quickly emerging.

Drawn by Justus Ross

Hip-hop is the most effective genre to comment on social issues and spark change in future generations

By: Jonathan Fernandez, SSW

Music has been one of the more popular forms of media in which artists can make social commentary and take stances on political issues. This isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon either. The tradition of critiquing society through music is as old as music itself. Songs have been written to fight in favor of or protest many issues including slavery, war, civil rights and police brutality. As the decades passed, the issues changed, and as the issues changed, so too did the genre that is most effective in delivering the intended message. 

Hip-hop originated in the late 1970s and was created by young African Americans and Latinos who had been marginalized and written off by mainstream society. The growing genre has roots in urban culture and was a reaction to social and economic malaise. Because many of the artists and hip-hop fans were from the inner city, it was a natural step for the genre to comment on important social issues that affected these marginalized communities. 

One of the first hip-hop tracks to make social commentary was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash in 1982. In the song, Grandmaster Flash comments on the difficulties that come with living in a low-income neighborhood filled with violence.

Fast forward 38 years and hip-hop artists have followed in Grandmaster Flash’s footsteps by continuing to use their music to speak up on social issues. There are many artists today using their platform to do so, such as J. Cole and Childish Gambino.

Cole’s 2018 album, KOD, shows what hip-hop can be at its best. His lyrical prowess is second to none and in this album he raps about a number of important issues including substance abuse, education in underprivileged communities and gun violence. On “Brackets” Cole argues taxpayers should have more agency in choosing where their money goes so they can more effectively help their community:  “Let me pick the things I’m funding from an app on my screen/ better that than letting whack congressman I’ve never seen/ Dictate where my money go.” 

He also comments on race and education in this song, specifically in underprivileged communities: “And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend/ Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin/ One thing about the men that’s controlling the pen/ That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins.”

Another example of a hip-hop artist using their music to make a political statement is Childish Gambino’s hit single, “This is America.” This song perfectly exemplifies how hip-hop can comment on social issues and be successful, as it catapulted to the no.1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. The music video went viral specifically because of the social commentary. Gambino’s lyrics and music video for the song highlight police brutality, systematic racism and a general apathy toward gun violence in America. 

Gambino raps, “Look how I’m livin’ now/ Police be trippin’ now,” which is a subtle reference to how, even though he’s rich and successful, he still can’t escape racial profiling from the police. Gambino also references specific instances where African Americans have been killed by police. When he says, “This is a celly/ That’s a tool,” he alludes to a man named Stephon Clark who was killed in his backyard because police assumed he was responsible for robberies in the area; the police claimed he was armed with a gun or a tool, but Clark was found with only his cell phone. Another aspect of the music video that garnered attention was Gambino striking a pose reminiscent of the Jim Crow caricature, gun in hand, before shooting someone and nonchalantly walking away. 

In 2018, the most streamed genre on Spotify was hip-hop and it grew even more popular last year. Hip-hop accounted for 27.4% of album equivalent audio consumption in 2019, the most among all genres. This continued growth in popularity makes hip-hop the ideal genre to make social commentary. Additionally, young adults are more likely to listen to hip-hop than any other genre (other than pop) which makes this the ideal genre for artists to make social commentary if they hope to spark change in future generations.

Hip-hop is the best genre to use to provide social commentary because of its rapid growth in popularity and connection to younger audiences. While country and folk music has famously been used to make political statements in the past, if artists are looking to incite change for future generations, they will continue to target the younger audience through hip-hop.

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